Acts of police brutality captured headlines in the United States for much of the 2020. These news events partly exposed the broader general American public to something minorities were already aware of – that the criminal justice system is racially biased. Despite some research progress in this area, there are still many notable research gaps that merit addressing. Accordingly, this research examines the extent of racial disparities and underlying prejudices affecting the criminal justice system at all levels – law enforcement, prosecution, sentencing, and penitentiary systems. This will be chiefly examined through a qualitative thematic analysis that examines publicly available data. Hypothetical results are analysed and subsequently discussed, prompting a discussion on areas of future research.
An Examining of Systemic Biases in the American Criminal Justice System and Sentencing Procedures
General Description and Overview
In the United States, the summer of 2020 served as a watershed moment for many. After decades of struggles and unfair treatment due to widespread systemic racism in policing and the criminal justice system, enough was finally enough. Millions of Americans and people around the world were exposed to the repeated acts of police brutality and abuse – acts which often go unchecked (Abrams, 2020). The highly publicized deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd during encounters with police received widespread attention, and deservedly so (Obasogie, 2020). Sadly, this is an everyday reality for people of color in the United States. The fact they are continuously being victimized by an unfair system should not come as a surprise to many people.
After all, police forces across the United States continue to hold persistent stereotypes about people of color and perceptions of their criminality (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018). That is, police are inclined to believe people of color are more likely to engage in crime, and should, consequently, be treated with greater hostility and apprehension than their white peers (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018). There is minimal doubt that this reality often contributes to the deaths of black and other minority populations during encounters with police and law enforcement in America (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018; Tobias & Joseph, 2020). This, in conjunction with what is an apparent reckless disregard for the lives of people of color, gives rise to a criminal justice in the United States that is deeply scarring to millions of people of color.
Indeed, for people of color who are lawfully arrested and charged by police, they are once again faced with an uphill battle. This is because the American criminal justice system inherently functions to oppress the lower income class, or those with a lower socio-economic status (Gustafson, 2009). In other words, the criminal justice system has historically been intended to serve the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the lower income classes so as to keep them under control (Gustafson, 2009). Beyond the evident sociological implications of this disparity, it is also noteworthy that this also ends up once again targeting minority populations. This is because the majority of those low-income families in America are racial or ethnic minorities (Simms, Fortuny, & Henderson, 2009).
It is important to examine systemic biases in the American criminal justice system and their sentencing procedures, primarily due to the high frequency of prejudice and racism towards minorities involved with the criminal system. The high frequency and the gravity of this situation is oft discussed, including in some recent reports commissioned in the wake of the events of last year. For instance, the Human Rights Watch (2021) indicated that members of racial, ethnic and other minority or vulnerable populations are significantly more likely to experience harassment, arbitrary detention, and abusive treatment by law enforcement. Moreover, these populations are more likely to be recipients of unfair, disparate treatment by prosecutors and the judicial system (Human Rights Watch, 2021).
Given that the United States is a country that boasts of adhering to tenets of democracy and the rule of law, biases in the criminal justice system paints a bad picture of the nation. Therefore, it should be imperative to acknowledge and critically examine forms of biases that exist within the criminal justice system to root them out. It is arguably hypocritical for the United States to speak out against injustices and systemic racism in other countries, when the same issues still persist in their own country.
Expanding on this, the integrity of the criminal justice system ought to be protected by all means possible. For this to be accomplished, an examination of the systemic racism and prejudice in the criminal system and in sentencing should be warranted. Furthermore, the three components of the criminal justice system (law enforcement, courts, and corrections) have to avoid discrimination of any kind to guarantee effective law and order in the country (Rudovsky, 2007).
When the criminal justice system tolerates cases of systemic bias and prejudice of any kind, havoc is likely to ensue. Law enforcement officers have to investigate crimes and collect evidence without favouring people based on their color, gender, and economic status. If law enforcers show racism, some individuals are likely to be incarcerated wrongly hence defeating the purpose of the criminal justice system. The current study will inform the need for the criminal justice system to uphold justice and the rule of law at all times. Officers in charge of law enforcement, courts, and corrections have to be guided by law rather than their personal opinions.
Finally, the Constitution of the United States acknowledges that all people are equal in the eyes of the law. According to Gans (2020), the Fourteenth Amendment mandates, “…states to respect basic fundamental rights, including those to life and personal security… One measure of justice for all persons, regardless of race…”. It should be contended that those involved in the criminal justice system should not be seen as parties involved in effectively mutilating the constitution. This is because they are the same individuals Americans are supposed to entrust to uphold and protect the principles of the constitution. Since the law is supposed to apply to all American citizens equally, biases based on race, or similar tenets, should never be tolerated in this country (Balko, 2018).
There is a distinct research gap in how the American criminal justice system has addressed the problem of systemic biases that exists within its ranks, from law enforcement practices to sentencing guidelines and prison treatment. Especially due to the events of the past year, there has been widespread condemnation of law enforcement in the United States, and how they have handled cases involving African-American or other individuals of color. There has similarly been an increase in research that examines this discrimination, albeit only at a law enforcement level. However, it is important to study how the criminal justice system has tried to redeem its’ image in the eyes of the general public.
Notably, the United States has attempted to register tremendous milestones in terms of human rights. Despite past reform attempts to the criminal justice system, cases of racism have continued to be reported, including in recent years. Accordingly, it would be prudent to understand why some of those responsible to the administration of the American criminal justice system apparently find it difficult to adhere to the existing laws. There is much less extant literature that critically evaluates, examines, and discusses the reasons for why racism is still tolerated in the governance of the country. In order to close the research gap, the current paper should identify why biasness still exist in the justice system in the twenty first century.
The preceding sections in this introduction outlined the broader framework that contributed to the interest that facilitated the development of this research study. Though there are important sociological implications that are meritorious, this research study will be conducted through a forensic psychology lens. This is because the discipline of forensic psychology, among other things, more carefully applies the principles of psychology to criminal justice and law (Weiner & Hess, 2006).
The focus of this research will be to determine the extent of the racial disparities that currently afflict the criminal justice system in the United States. Of particular interest is the police interrogation strategies used with minority populations, prosecution, sentencing frameworks for minorities, and minorities in the penitentiary systems. In other words, this research will examine the biased treatment of minority populations in America from their encounters with police through sentencing. Accordingly, the guiding research questions will be:
RQ1: To what extent do American criminal courts treat defendants who belong to a minority population differently than similar non-minority defendants?
RQ2: Does a preponderance of evidence suggest that the American criminal sentencing guidelines are prejudicial and biased in situations when the defendant belongs to a minority population?
This topic and research focus will be investigated using readily available public data from the American criminal justice system. In particular, arrest data and demographics, interrogation techniques, disposition of criminal cases involving minorities, prison demographics, and recidivism and reincarceration of prior convicted individuals. This will be conducted using secondary research that is publicly available, which also offers vital demographic information and statistical data. The research methodology will be expanded in subsequently in the respective section of the paper.
A systematic literature review on criminal sentencing disparities in the United States was conducted, based on the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) framework. This framework develops a reliable and comprehensive overview of a specific topic, by identifying, analyzing, and synthesizing primary research sources (Liberati et al., 2009). These phases were conducted iteratively and systematically, so as to develop a solid framework of scholarly literature for the ensuing literature review. The specific inclusion and exclusion criteria used to identify pertinent literature review articles are presented in tabular form in Appendix A.
Overview of the American Criminal Justice System
The American criminal justice system comprises three branches, namely the correction system, the police, and the court. The three branches of the American justice system enforce the American legal code by ensuring the delivery of justice at various levels. Theses systems are supposed to uphold the rule of law in the country and hold all individuals to same standards, and treat everyone fairly (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2021). As the available literature suggests, these principles have not always been afforded to minority populations in the United States who encounter the criminal system.
Origins. The American criminal justice system has a long history of evolution that underpins its initial origin, purposes, evolution, and emergence of modern practices. The American system of justice originated from the English common law system, and gradually evolved into a multifaceted series of systematic decisions and procedures. The system is essentially anchored on the fundamental tenet that crimes committed against one person actually constitute crimes against the state (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2021). Therefore, the American criminal system prosecutes a person based on the fact that they aggrieved the entire society, or state. However, the victims of crime are normally involved all through the criminal process, often aided by several justice agencies which operate programs focused on assisting victims of crime (Mackenzie, 2001).
Purpose. In general, the criminal justice system has historically endeavoured to serve four main goals, namely incapacitation, retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation (Mackenzie, 2001). Therefore, the criminal justice system plays an important role in society by holding offenders to account. For instance, the deterrence of people from crime enhances law and order by reducing the number of crimes. Rehabilitation helps offenders abandon their bad ways and reintegrate into society (Mackenzie, 2001).
One of the major purposes of the criminal justice system is delivering justice for all. The process of delivering justice for all involves guaranteeing a fair process of justice, convicting criminals, and protecting the innocent (Godwin University, 2021). Through these processes, the criminal justice system maintains order all over the country. In addition, the system enhances the safety of citizens (Godwin University, 2021). In the absence of the criminal justice system, the country could be plagued with danger, havoc, theft, and violence.
Changes. The American criminal justice system has undergone a great metamorphosis to reach its current state. Originally, the criminal justice system was blind to the injustices perpetuated against racial and ethnic minorities in the United States. Examples of such practices include the Jim Crow rules, which were extremely biased against individuals of African American descent (Doleac, 2018).
Subsequent reforms in the criminal justice system have involved the removal of barbaric laws, such as the Jim Crow rules, which only really served to undermine the rights of blacks and other people of color. Therefore, the current justice system is apparently aimed at being more responsive to the rights of minority populations, and all people.
Contemporary Criminal System. The contemporary criminal justice system guarantees equal rights to people from minority populations by ensuring the law enforcement, the courts, and correctional facilities are not biased against the minorities (Visher & Travis, 2011). This is a stark difference from the past when the American criminal justice system perpetrated a gross violation against minority groups like African Americans. Calls for additional reforms have been underway to end police brutality, mass incarceration and introduce rehabilitation (Abrams, 2020).
The Criminalization of Minority Populations in America
The criminalization of minority populations in America has been a major issue in the criminal justice system. In fact, calls for reform have been based on the need to reduce bias against minority populations. Mass incarceration has been described as discrimination against people of color in the United States (Berdejó, 2018). For instance, black males constitute the largest percentage of incarcerated people in US prisons.
The main cause of this problem includes racial profiling, where people of color are framed by law enforcement for crimes they did not commit. This has been preserved by the courts, whereby minority populations are more likely sentenced for crimes they never committed, or where their guilt is questionable. In spite of the many reforms made in the criminal justice system, the criminalization of minority populations remains a major issue.
History of Criminal Laws. The history of criminal laws in the United States indicates a deliberate bias against minority populations. Racial discrimination was entrenched in the United States criminal laws, and members of minority populations were on the receiving end (Berdejó, 2018). As a result, people of color, particularly African Americans, were persecuted by the criminal justice system, which was heavily biased against them. The American civil rights movement fought against the institutionalized racism perpetrated by the criminal justice system (Berdejo, 2018). Still, Jim Crow rules remain the most vivid reminder of how criminal laws in America have historically been racially biased and only existed to benefit the majority white population.
Policing and Minorities. Policing in the United States has historically been biased against minority populations. Historically, law enforcement was used by the state to perpetrate horrific injustices against people of color. Minorities have borne the brunt of biased policing throughout the history of the United States. Some notable examples of policing bias against people of color include racial profiling, mass incarceration, and police brutality (Doleac, 2018).
Despite the repeal of Jim Crow era laws, there continues to be a conflict between law enforcement and minorities throughout American history. This is largely due to the perception amongst minority populations that law enforcement is not truly looking out for their best interests, and that they remain biased against them (Abrams, 2020).
Although there have been gradual attempts at policing reforms, bias in policing against minority populations persists. For instance, racial profiling and police brutality are still prevalent in the United States as evidenced through the events in the summer of 2020. Acts of police brutality, among other things, sparked the emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which fights for racial equality in policing (Abrams, 2020; Obasogie, 2020).
Prosecution of Minorities. The prosecution system in America has been prejudicial or unfair to minorities since people from minority groups have been sentenced for crimes they did not commit. Evidence suggests that ethnic and racial minorities have been severely prosecuted in the United States.
The first form of prejudice involves the mass incarceration of people of color in US prisons. There does not appear to be any scientific or otherwise logical explanation for the high number of people of color, especially blacks, who populate United States prisons (Simms, Fortuny, & Henderson, 2009; Visher & Travis, 2011). Biased prosecution in the United States is abetted by racial profiling, whereby law enforcement targets people of color for apprehension (Godwin University 2021). Therefore, people of color are presented to courts with framed-up charges, and prosecution perpetuates injustices by falsely sentencing such people (Godwin University, 2021). In the United States, black males are more likely to be perceived as potential criminals by law enforcement. This consequently intimates that when a crime is committed, the first target by law enforcement ought to be a black male (Godwin University, 2021). It appears as though this explains the high number of black males in United States prisons.
There are greater racial discrepancies in plea bargaining in cases involving low-level felonies and misdemeanors. In cases of severe felonies, white and black defendants attain similar outcomes (Berdejó, 2018). The criminal histories of defendants are also essential in mediating racial disparities. This implies that plea-bargaining processes in the United States are racially biased, and people from minority populations face discrimination in this regard.
The Sentencing of Minorities
The sentencing of minorities is another important dimension of the American criminal justice system. Sentencing is a role of the court that relies on the evidence given by the prosecution regarding the criminal activities of defendants (Gustafson, 2009). The sentencing of minorities has historically been a biased process, which is largely unsurprising considering that most of the people convicted and sentenced in the United States originate from minority groups (Visher & Travis, 2011). This is considered a form of bias since there is no evidence that people from specific ethnic and racial minorities are more inclined to crime (Gustafson, 2009). For instance, the sentencing of African Americans in the United States cannot be explained scientifically since they constitute a larger percentage of people sentenced in the country.
The racial discrepancies in the juvenile and adult justice systems emanate from the pretrial and policing factors and are complicated by sentencing policies and discretionary decisions that disadvantage minorities due to their socioeconomic disadvantage and race (The Sentencing Project, 2018). There are racial disparities in sentencing in the United States that target people of color and other minority populations. Therefore, sentencing policies in the US are inclined to be prejudicial against ethnic and racial minorities.
A qualitative research methodology will be used to conduct the research study. The goal here will be to determine the extent of racial disparities that currently afflict the criminal justice system in the United States. The methodology will involve a comprehensive examination of the pertinent public data and documents to examine recurring themes and patterns. That is, a thematic analysis of the public documents will be conducted. A thematic analysis was chosen because it is generally considered an effective means of analysing qualitative data, especially when researchers want to identify patterns across a set of data or documents (Noswell, Norris, & White, 2017). Through this approach, the study will examine racial disparities in the United States criminal justice system holistically. It will allow for the examination of the relevant subject matter through the consideration of various perspectives. For instance, gathering data from the criminal justice system as well as from various organizations aimed at fighting such injustices, such as The Bail Project.
The primary strategy for gathering data sources for this study will include published information about racial disparities in the United States criminal justice system. Secondary data will be used to examine the topic of research, and this will involve the review of published materials on the subject. The analysis of secondary data is appropriate for this study since there is likely to be an abundance of published material on this subject matter. These materials are expected to offer the required insight for analysis in this study.
Hypothetically, the findings of this study should confirm the high prevalence of racial disparities that afflict the criminal justice system in the United States. Disparities have been reported in various dimensions of the criminal justice, including in law enforcement, prosecution, and sentencing. In all three of these avenues, racial disparities have been reported, seemingly indicating the rampant perpetuation of injustices against racial and ethnic minorities.
It is anticipated that the following will constitute the major findings of the study:
- That there are many racial and ethnic disparities in policing since law enforcement is typically prejudicial towards ethnic and racial minorities;
- That disparities exist within the prosecution of different races, ethnicities, and minorities in the United States criminal justice system;
- That there is a high prevalence of ethnic and racial prejudices in sentencing, which involves the harsher sentencing of people of color or other minority populations;
- That correctional facilities involve high racial disparities considering that people who belong to minority populations constitute a larger percentage of inmates in United States prisons.
As outlined in the results section, it is likely that the research would produce findings that indicate disparities in policing, prosecution, and in sentencing. This would be consistent with the existent research on these topics, as outlined in the literature review.
There are many racial and ethnic disparities in policing since law enforcement has historically been predisposed to be biased against ethnic and racial minorities. This is perhaps most prominently evidenced in the cases of racial prejudice in policing, which include racial profiling and police brutality (Abrams, 2020). These prejudices have a history in the American justice system, and many reforms have been made to address them. However, these injustices and discrimination continue to persist.
For those individuals who are prosecuted in the United States, it is clear that there are racial disparities. That is, the prosecution of minorities is unfair and prejudicial. As previously described by Doleac (2018), minorities are typically subjected to unfair procedures of the prosecution that tend to result in biased convictions. It is also not an uncommon practice for prosecutors to indirectly collude with law enforcement to present framed-up charges against minority groups like African Americans (Abrams, 2020; Doleac, 2018).
As for minority populations who are convicted, there is once again a high prevalence of racial and ethnic prejudice. Simply put, convicted individuals who belong to a minority population are more likely to receive stricter, harsher sentences. As Gustafson (2009) outlined, the sentencing of African-Americans in the United States is racially driven, more often than not. Moreover, the criminal courts complicate the unfairness encountered by African Americans in the hands of law enforcement.
Finally, correctional facilities involve high racial disparities, considering that people of color constitute a larger percentage of inmates in US prisons. The mass incarceration of African Americans is a major problem in the US correctional services (Gustafson, 2009). The majority of inmates in US prisons belong to those from the African American community, or other minority populations. Notably, black males are being incarcerated at higher levels, even though there does not appear to be any scientific evidence that race is connected to crime (Gustafson, 2009). That is, specific races are not more predisposed to criminality even though minority races and populations are more frequently convicted and sentenced to prison terms. Evidently, there appears to be a dissonance between these two facts.
The potential limitations of conducting the study include time, subject, scope, availability of materials, and cooperation of stakeholders. Time is an important factor, considering that every research process is conducted within a stipulated period. Therefore, time can limit the kind of research conducted since researchers work within the stipulated time. The subject of study limits which materials can be covered during research (Mackenzie, 2001). The scope of study is based on the research question and topic. The availability of materials and cooperation of stakeholders limits the level of success of a study. Researchers can only work with the available materials or resources, implying that the unavailability of research materials may limit the study.
The potential ethical concerns in conducting research include free and informed consent, privacy, confidentiality, and necessary approvals. Free and informed consent refers to the process of recruiting participants in the study. Participants should only be recruited if they agree to take part in the study (Mackenzie, 2001). They should be informed about the study and allowed to make voluntary decisions to join the study. The confidentiality of data should be maintained at all times to protect it from access by third parties. The identity of participants should not be revealed, and this can be done by using pseudonyms instead of real names.
Suggestions for Future Research
Based on the literature review, it is evident that this is a growing area of interest for psychologists, as well as many other disciplines. There are likely to be plenty of future opportunities to critically examine the state of the American criminal justice system and the prejudicial impact that the system has on minority populations.
Also, it seems likely that this is a research area that will become increasingly multidisciplinary. It is feasible that researchers with experience in law, psychology, history, sociology, among others will offer varying perspectives on a complex issue. It makes sense that this research area will continue to increase, especially after the tough conversations held as a nation due to the events occurring during the summer of 2020. Some suggestions for areas of future research to be conducted might revolve around obtaining a deeper understanding of the need for further reforms in the American criminal justice system. Research that investigates the entrenched prejudices in the criminal system, including the role of evidence in prosecution and sentencing, may also be warranted. Finally, a critical analysis and examination of law enforcement policies and what effective reformation of law enforcement to reduce racial bias should look like is another meritorious area for future research.
Abrams, Z. (2020). What works to reduce police brutality. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/10/cover-police-brutality
Balko, R. (2018). There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal justice system is racist. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/opinions/systemic-racism-police-evidence-criminal-justice-system/
Berdejo, C. (2018). Criminalizing race: Racial disparities in plea bargaining. Boston College Law Review, 59(4).
Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2021). What is the sequence of events in the criminal justice system? The Justice System. https://bjs.ojp.gov/justice-system
Doleac, J.L. (2018). Strategies to productively reincorporate the formerly incarcerated into communities: A review of the literature. http://ftp.iza.org/dp11646.pdf
Gans, D.H. (2020). The 14th amendment was meant to be a protection against state violence. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/14th- amendment-protection-against-state-violence/614317/
Godwin University. (2021). The importance of the criminal justice system and today’s professionals. https://www.goodwin.edu/enews/importance-of-the- criminal-justice-system/
Gustafson, K. (2009). The criminalization of poverty. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 3(99), 643-716.
Hetey, R.C., & Eberhardt, J.L. (2018). The numbers don’t speak for themselves: Racial disparities and the persistence of inequality in the criminal justice system. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(3), 183-187. doi:10.1177/0963721418763931
Human Rights Watch. (2021). Racism and the administration of justice. https://www.hrw.org/legacy/campaigns/race/criminal_justice.htm
Liberati, A., Altman, D.G., Tetzlaff, J., Mulrow, C., Gotzsche, P.C., Ioannidis, J.P., Clarke, M., Devereaux, P.J., Kleijnen, J., & Moher, D. (2009). The PRISMA statement for reporting systematic reviews and meta-analyses of studies that evaluate healthcare interventions: Explanations and elaboration. British Medical Journal, 6(7). doi:10.1136/bmj.b2700
Mackenzie, D.L. (2001). Sentencing and corrections in the 21st century: Setting the stage for the future. https://www.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh241/files/archives/ncjrs/189106-2.pdf
Noswell, L.S., Norris, J.M., & White, D.E. (2017). Thematic analysis: Striving to meet the trustworthiness criteria. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 16(1). doi:10.1177/1609406917733847
Obasogie, O. (2020). Police killing black people is a public health crisis too. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/police-violence-pandemic/2020/06/05/e1a2a1b0-a669-11ea-b619-3f9133bbb482_story.html
Rudovsky, D. (2007). Litigation civil rights cases to reform racially biased criminal justice practices. Column of Human Rights, 39, 97.
Sentencing Project. (2018). Report to the United Nations on racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/un-report-on-racial-disparities/
Simms, M.C., Fortuny, K., & Henderson, E. (2009). Racial and ethnic disparities among low-income families. The Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/32976/411936-racial-and-ethnic-disparities-among-low-income-families.pdf
Tobias, H., & Joseph, A. (2020). Sustaining systemic racism through psychological gaslighting: Denials of racial profiling and justifications of carding by police utilizing local news media. Race and Justice, 10(4), 424-455. doi:10.1177/2153368718760969
Visher, C.A., & Travis, J. (2011). Life on the outside. The Prison Journal, 91.
Weiner, I.B., & Hess, A.K. (Eds.). (2006). The handbook of forensic psychology (3rd ed.). Wiley Publishers.
Literature Inclusion Criteria
|Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria|
|Literature Type||Inclusion: Empirical research articles using qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-method approaches; theses and dissertations; systematic literature reviews and meta-analyses, theoretical reviews
Exclusion: Commentary; newspapers and magazines; perspective-based analyses
|Publication Source||Inclusion: Peer-reviewed journals, academic book/book chapters
Exclusion: Non-academic internet resources, conference proceedings, non-peer-reviewed journal articles
|Data Sources||Inclusion: Data from the United States, published within the last 10 years